Originally published in educational Horizons, Winter 1992

Really Want Change? Deconsolidate the Schools!
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

See also,
Politics, Consensus & School Reform; or
School Reform via Teacher Professionalization


edited 4/14/12

In the 1930's there were about 127,000 school districts. By the late 1980's they had been consolidated into slightly over 15,000 much larger units. No doubt some can point to many benefits gained by such consolidation. But who exactly gained those benefits? And who paid the costs? Is it time for a change?

Now, every change has its pluses and minuses. And just what exactly a plus or minus is, depends a lot upon whom you ask. In general, any social institution distributes costs and benefits among its participants. This banal observation is lost on the great majority of those who work in schools. Such thinking does not fire the passion that keeps many of us in teaching through the bleakest circumstances.

Besides working daily in a middle school, I teach occasionally at the university. My students there who are prospective teachers want to be told there is no connection between what goes on in a classroom and the organization of the school. After all, why not close their classroom door and shut out the world? Can't they just "raise their expectations"?

Prospective teachers want to know how to be "effective." That is all. They do not want to hear that important factors are not under their control, unless, with equal though contrary confusion, they give up the struggle, citing them as insurmountable. Would-be teachers tend not to believe that school consolidation can have much effect on what they do. Much more important, they imagine, is their personal verve and dedication. This "Man of La Mancha-complex" often persists well into their careers. Being true to their glorious quest, their hearts, perhaps, will lie peaceful and calm when they're laid to their rest. Fine for them, but what about their students?

A teacher, Mr. Quixote, was astonished by a German visitor to his rowdy, inner-city middle school. "Your school is really not much different from mine," said the foreign observer. "Only you tolerate far too many interruptions! Must the PA system be so frequently used? And why do so many people knock at your door during class time?" Quixote exulted. It wasn't just his delusion! His citadel was perpetually under assault by philistines!

But were these interruptions unimportant? A bus had been rescheduled. A student was sought for early dismissal. A counselor was doing high school selection. The details of a fight were being investigated by a disciplinarian. In a big school sparsely allocated with staff, the most efficient means of attending to everyone's general concerns were precisely those that frustrated Quixote's specific concerns as a teacher.

Walt Disney made big bucks from a basic insight: Americans do not like tragedy. Educators are no exception. They find it depressing to think that well-meaning, reasonable people pursuing their own conceptions of good could work at cross-purposes. If school consolidation benefitted some, it must have benefitted most! And if they wish upon a star (makes no difference who they are --- that's really democratic!), everything their heart desires will come to them. Actually, like Jiminy Cricket, Plato dreamed the same dream millennia ago. But, ancient Greeks, unlike many modern Americans, did not think that bigger was better.

Consolidating school districts into bigger, more complex entities provided, one must imagine, benefits of some sort to someone. Has anyone really looked at who got what? Was it the kids who willy-nilly are compelled to seek an education in schools governed by lockstep curricula and who find breathing space only by donning the mark of SPED? (A stigma remains a stigma to the kids even if a million educators loudly declaim, "Oh what fine clothes the emperor has!")

Although the benefits of consolidation, e.g., bigger resource pools, program expansion, multiply for some of us, their costs are disproportionately visited upon the students who could well dispense with them. What do children need from the school? It depends on what stage of development they are in. And concern for child development has hardly been a governing consideration in the way school districts have been consolidated.

I read in my local papers that teachers are concerned to teach "values" in their classes. Parents and even presidents want "values" taught. The controversy brewing over this is whether it violates restrictions on religious indoctrination. But, this is just more tilting at windmills and it is not Mr. Quixote alone who is leading the charge.

The kids do learn values in school. Only what they learn we, "the general public", find disappointing or repugnant. So we imagine that preaching -- always confused with teaching -- will undo the maxims that are ground into every student's bones each time a pedagogical encounter is sacrified to organizational necessity:

Part of the problem is that these maxims are reinforced by our public culture. Perhaps this is one reason we are willing to tolerate them as costs of consolidation.

But there is a deeper concern to be mined. Big organizations are rarely the places for nurturing moral development. Rather, they work best for individuals who are already mature enough to appreciate them for what they function best as: adversary arenas pursuing a civil equity. Many, many kids are not ready for this. They are starved for affectionate relationships, for discipline from a firm but loving hand. By way of contrast, our big schools offer them procedures, tedious and complex, to support their enthusiasms or redress their grievances.

Does this poem speak to you, Sara? Well, it's not in the curriculum so maybe we can start a club. But watch your grade point average, or you will be banned from E.C. activities!

What, Sammy? You say that Johnny told you he was going to beat you up after school? Hello, Mr. Counselor? If you can fit it in today before three o' clock, try to find out what the problem is between Johnny and Sammy, who alleges he will be his victim. We'll need a written report in case something serious happens.

No doubt such procedures are organizationally necessary in a big school. However, they are existentially hollow. Schools are too big. School districts are too big. For the children, the costs of this bigness are many, and the benefits, few.

If, however, we adults, in our collective wisdom, decide that the benefits for us of school district consolidation outweigh the costs to our children, we needn't fear that some form of organization or another will not answer their needs. One of the most benign examples I can think of is MTV, or in general, the whole pop entertainment industry. Then there is always the drug and gang culture. And the prison system.

School counselors have told me how some of their middle school students look forward to jail as providing at least three meals a day and some protection from arbitrary violence, in sad contrast to their normal home and school experience. Must we wait for some special angel to hold us back from the sacrifice of our children? Could we not sacrifice some of our sacred cows instead?